Something told me that the head of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston would be a stiff, elderly man overseeing a cohort of quiet thinkers.
The walls of David Eagleman’s laboratory were the first sign that I had misread him. Gigantic whiteboards were covered with the ramblings of the lab team—including a goofy coffee-break list of “sciency movies” from Total Recallto Being John Malkovich. One of his staffers wore plaid shorts, flip-flops, and a T-shirt. I was reminded of a point in his new book, Incognito, that intuition is a poor judge of reality.
Eagleman himself stepped out of his office in a tight-fitting maroon T-shirt that showed off his fit figure (his latest craze is parkour—street running), designer jeans, and black trainers. A green backpack slung over his shoulder made him look like one of the Ph.D. students he mentors.
Neuroscience is one of the newer, hipper faces of science, promising novel if sometimes controversial insights into the way our brains work. Eagleman is its current poster boy—a best-selling author of both fiction and nonfiction (his undergraduate degree was in British and American literature at Rice University), who is at ease on the public stage. His last book, Sum, offered imaginative vignettes of what might happen in the afterlife—and became an international sensation.
Every few months, Eagleman and any takers among his staff go down to the shooting range. A traditional Texan pursuit, though Eagleman bristles at the thought of being a traditional Texan. He doesn’t hunt. Rifle practice is just another way to mentor his students. “I try to teach them about life,” he says. “How to shoot a gun is something you hope you never need. But, whatever one feels about gun ownership, everyone should know how to use one.”
Today, I am the one designated to learn. We head off in his jeep, with Eagleman doing the talking en route. The long-term goal of his lab is to deepen our understanding of how the brain constructs perception, and how this influences society. The research concentrates on time perception, synesthesia, and neurolaw. This last area, which explores the impact neuroscience might have on criminal punishment and legislation, is the focus of Incognito.
“The assumption that all brains have the same capacities is charitable but demonstrably false,” he says. “That means everyone gets treated with the same punishments and that our prisons become our de facto mental health care institutions. It is much more effective to treat people’s problems individually.”
Taking this a step further, Eagleman argues that responsibility is not always a helpful thing to define when deciding a criminal’s fate. “Because of the infinitely complex combination of genes and environment,” he says, “people’s brains can be very different, and we’ll never be able to disentangle all the causative factors that led one person to have poorer impulse control, or a diminished capacity to understand consequences, and so on.” Instead, Eagleman thinks we need a “forward-looking” legal system that assesses a person’s risk of re-offending.
We pull up to the shooting gallery he usually frequents to be confronted by a “closed” sign on the front door. (Even neuroscientists can forget to check these things.) Eagleman Googles other ranges in the area, and within minutes we are at the Pasadena Gun Center and Shooting Range. There is nobody else inside but the man at the front desk.
We sign in, and Eagleman is given paper targets of a man with a red bulls-eye to fire at in our lane. Eagleman pulls three guns out of his innocuous-looking backpack—a .357 Colt Magnum revolver and two pistols, a 9mm and a .45—and a box of bullets.
He warns me to keep the gun always pointed ahead. “Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to pull it.” He shows me how to hold the gun: The left hand should cup the bottom to steady it; both arms should be fully extended and feet wide apart.
The technique was taught to him by his father—a psychiatrist and sharpshooter in New Mexico, where he grew up; his mother was a biology teacher. Eagleman pulls on his goggles and ear covers and fires off a string of shots. I never get used to the noise and flinch with each new bullet. All of his shots pierce the inner black circle in the man’s gut, and several punch the red center.
My turn. I have never shot a gun before. As the mother of two boys, I have pulled my share of plastic triggers. What I didn’t expect was that on a real gun, it takes a long time for the trigger to engage. The weapon is heavy. When I shoot the first time, the gun jumps up, so that the bullet hits the paper man in his head. Despite my being far from the red bulls-eye, Eagleman congratulates me on what would have been a deadly shot.
He has seen a lot of people fire weapons—he likes to bring his staff down to shoot, considering it a “bonding experience.” What has he learned about his colleagues—the good and the bad shooters, the timid and the aggressive ones?
“I’m not sure I know the mapping,” he says, trying to put an end to it. I press him again on the ride back to Houston. Eagleman finally relents: “There is a particular type of person that just bears down and is deadly. Once I see that side of a personality, I am able to recognize it in their work.”
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.